Reposting CCC's Cambridge Day letter here. Please take the time to donate to Cambridge Day after reading! Their "SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS" link is on the front page. Thanks!!
Monday, March 29, 2021The road to hell is paved with good intentions – an old saying that comes to new life in a petition to upzone all of Cambridge called “The Missing Middle.”
Because they claim to want to create more affordable housing, its proponents have felt free to put forward fact-free arguments, as in a recent op-ed in the Cambridge Chronicle, “Zoning Should Reflect our Values of Affordability and Sustainability.” The truth is that this proposal will displace tenants by turbocharging gentrification. It will allow dorm-level density on even the smallest street. And it will further destroy Cambridge’s diminishing tree cover and green spaces.
Proponents of “The Missing Middle” claim that Cambridge is “de-densifying.” It’s hard to know what city they are referring to, since Cambridge is among the most densely populated cities in the country, with a population that is steadily growing, not declining. They want us to take “our cue” from Minneapolis, for example. This is a head-scratcher, since Minneapolis is light-years behind where we are now. It is true that Minneapolis has rezoned to allow more density, but it’s doubtful it will ever catch up to Cambridge’s density level. A comparison of the amount of open space in each city drives home the point: Minneapolis is 67 percent open space, while Cambridge is only 24 percent – making open space in Cambridge even rarer than it is in New York City!
Backers of “Missing Middle” zoning apparently believe that single-family homes as well as two- and three-deckers are a big part of the housing problem in Cambridge. They want those lots to be built out, supposedly to create more affordable units. Let’s look at the actual numbers. Single-family homes make up a mere 7 percent of the total housing stock in Cambridge. To get an idea of how low a percentage this is, compare us to Portland, Oregon (another city that they bizarrely want us to take “our cue” from) where single-family homes make up an astounding 60 percent of total housing stock.
Two- and three-deckers are iconic housing in Cambridge. Dating back to the 19th century, they represent just under a quarter of the housing units in the city.
Generations of Cantabrigians have raised their families in these homes, most of them as renters.
Under the “Missing Middle” zoning proposal, these homes could be torn down and their tenants evicted. The economics of the upzoning would make these properties irresistible to developers: Tear down a triple-decker, build out the lot, build up to 40 feet and sell the resulting three units for millions of dollars. If you believe that won’t happen, just consider that land and construction costs in Cambridge are among the very highest in the country; the way to make money in Cambridge on small lots is to build as big as possible and to sell for as much as possible. And no development under 10 units is obligated to build even a single affordable unit. It would be a modern-day land rush that makes units more expensive, not less. As a spur to endless construction, no wonder that “Missing Middle” zoning has been embraced by real estate interests and is a top priority of the National Association of Home Builders.
Let’s not overlook the effect on open space and the tree canopy. Slashing the space required between buildings means less open space and fewer mature trees. Under “Missing Middle” zoning, all setbacks (front, back and sides) are cut basically in half. Owners can also go up to 40 feet – the equivalent of a four-story building. Proponents promise that since “The Missing Middle” gets rid of the requirement of off-street parking, driveways would turn into gardens. That’s a lovely dream, but developers look to their return on investment, and roughly two-thirds of households in Cambridge have at least one car. We can wish that the cars all go away, but “Missing Middle” zoning means only that will be far more of them competing for the same number of on-street parking places.
In one moment of candor, proponents acknowledge that “Missing Middle” zoning won’t actually help the situation in Cambridge without a guaranteed “public subsidy.” In fact, they concede that without significant public expenditure, zoning for “Missing Middle Housing” will produce “neither MMH nor affordable units.” Based on their own statement, it is difficult to understand why they want to open the floodgates before doing the hard work of getting the funds to make sure their proposal won’t lead, in their own words, to “worsening the housing crisis.”
There is one area in which we agree strongly with the backers of the zoning: Cambridge needs more affordable housing. Ironically, “Missing Middle,” by making prices skyrocket, will only make that harder to achieve. As the pandemic passes, we need to look at city and commercial property that could be repurposed; we need to continue to support not-for-profit developers and homeownership programs; and we must protect current tenants.
To close with another wise saying: First, do no harm. “Missing Middle” zoning would do great harm to our neighbors and neighborhoods without adding to the affordable mix of housing. We urge the City Council to reject it.
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Maple Avenue Cambridge Mar. 20, 2020 GBH by Philip Martin.
Mathematician, Robert Winters has written an important February 16, 2021 post on residential density in the Cambridge Civic Journal. Winters notes that "even a relatively dense C-1 street like Cherry Street in The Port could see a 66% increase in density. Chalk Street (Res C) could see a 72% increase. Cornelius Way could have a 175% increase (that’s 2.75 times the current density). Near me, Antrim Street could go up 47%, Maple Ave. could go up 84%, and Lee Street could go up 50%. In the leafy western "suburbs", a Res B street like Appleton St. could go up 137% (2.37 times the current density) and Lakeview Ave. (a mix of Res A-1 and Res B) would nearly triple in density." Winters published the chart below of typical streets, what residential density they share now, and what density is being proposed for them in the Missing Middle Housing Petition, should it pass.
Maple Avenue, pictured above, which is in Mid-Cambridge (B and C-1 zones) is already very dense, with lots of existing MMH housing types. This street currently has a median FAR of .68, that could increase a staggering 84% if the MMH passes.
Antrim Street, pictured at the top of the CCC blog tab, also is in Mid-Cambridge (C-1). This street has a median FAR of .85. If the MMH passes, it could increase 47%. - between 1/2 and 2/3 larger than currently.
Any of the single- or multi-family houses on this street could be demolished and a larger structure 40 feet (4 story equivalent) could be built in its place.
For other Cambridge streets in our various neighborhoods, see his chart below. To determine the density increase proposed for your own home or that of your neighbors, we provide the formula below.
Curious what you will find? Check it out near the bottom of this post!
If a residence is larger than the allowable current FAR nothing is illegal. This just means the area was at one point down zoned after a certain optimum density had been reached.
What changes will MMH bring to your neighborhood? With MMH, every residence in the city would be up zoned to 1.25 FAR, larger than almost all structures in Cambridge residential areas today.
The two houses below offer important insights.
The single family East Cambridge house on the left is in the C-1 area (a home well known for its backyard “neighborhood farm”) is now zoned for 3 units. Under the MMH, but an investor could buy it, demolish this home and replace it with a large 40 foot tall modern box-style building for 13 small studio apartments (3 affordable with inclusionary. More likely there would be only 9 units created (and zero affordable to avoid Inclusionary impacts), each renting for c. $3,000 a month (not the kind of housing middle-income residents are looking for. The number of people living on this one property in an already very dense neighborhood would increase vastly. Nearby luxury town houses are beginning to appear. Bold contemporary style homes can be great if designed well, but these will likely increase the cost of housing in this neighborhood, and we would lose both this wonderful older home and its adjacent neighborhood farm.
A single family Mid-Cambridge home with a garage was recently purchased by a developer after the owner passed. This house was built as a 1 family but was converted to a 3 family about 50 years ago. Their garage is being replaced with a new infill single family market-rate (luxury) residence (see rendering on the right), built in a contemporary box-style, whose design reflects nothing of the neighboring homes. With MMH the height of the structure (now about 25 feet) could increase to 40 feet (nearly double) and without the cornice detail separating the second story from the third, mansard roof. The new structure would dwarf those around it and would be even more out of keeping with the housing fabric of nearby residences.
House in East Cambridge House in Mid-Cambridge with an Auxiliary home behind it.
How do you find the density of your own (or your neighbor's) home currently and how much it can be increased with the MMH ? Here is how you can find out what would happen to your residence or more importantly that of your neighbor, were it to be purchased, demolished, and rebuilt under MMH by an investor.
Here is what would happen to your residence or more importantly that of your neighbor, were it to be purchased, demolished, and rebuilt under MMH by an investor.
How to determine the FAR of any Cambridge residence in 3 easy steps – and how that will change
What are the core proposed changes in the MMH:
The last change would encourage large flat-roofed box-like structures in every neighborhood whether or not they fit with the homes that already exist there.
While we all want more affordable housing in Cambridge, the MMH would let investors and developers buy up property throughout the city, or add additional structures to it or in the back yard, and even demolish still functional historic housing and build new structures - all without design guidelines or review and at a density, height, and scale that often significantly differs from others in residential and mixed residential-commercial areas at present.
Repost from 29 November 2020 and edited to include tweets.
A leader of the developer-linked Cambridge ABC Political PAC posted the top left map. (and lower left) map on Nov. 29,2020 claiming that in some Cambridge residential areas apartments are actually "banned." Apartments banned in Cambridge!! Nope, rather it shows how one can lie with Maps - Trumpian style. Several months earlier, on August 7, 2020 this same person tweeted the image on the right, noting that "Of the 157 apartment buildings built in Cambridge in 1920, only 9 of them are still conforming today. The reason we can't have nice things is because we banned them. Every single apartment in this image--all built in 1920--is illegal under zoning today (enphasis ours).
"Not true! These apartment buildings are ALL perfectly legal - and have always been. None of these buildings has been banned. Moreover, we like Boston are actually swimming in available apartments throughout the city as seen in the top right Apartment Finder map of available apartments mapped out in Cambridge.
What is this all about? Who knows .but it looks like ABC wants to up-zone the whole city to make it available to developers at the same time as removing Historic and Conservation Districts as well as the ability of voluntary neighborhood groups to advocate for nearby residents on various development projects that are in play.
Cambridge Day has published as an Op Ed Open Letter to City Council on the question of conservation district impacts on property value and rental price increases. In this analysis not only is Cambridge specific data explored (a comparison of conservation district and non-conservation district price increases since 2015) but so too are a range of U.S. studies as well as a nationwide U.K. study.
This "Open Letter" was written in response a Cambridge City Council Policy Order coming up for a vote that contends that historic preservation (Conservation Districts) increase rents and should not be allowed. This order is based largely on a Sept. 10 Cambridge Chronicle op-ed, itself a reprise of a Feb. 27 blog post by a local political activist, claiming “Conservation Districts Make Housing Less Affordable.”
The longer "Open Letter" study is here: op_ed_conservation_districts_10.16.20-final.a__.pdf
This study analyzes both Cambridge property value and rent increases between 2015 and today and was able to show that Neighborhood Conservation Districts (NCD) have LOWER rents and property value increases than those areas of the city that lie outside Conservation Districts (nearly 10% lower indeed). In this letter/study the larger national and UK literature delineated by a local pro-development blogger is based on a deeply flawed analysis of the cited literature. The issue here is coming to a head with a push against historic preservation in Cambridge in an effort to enable developers to build what they want. Cambridge is one of the earliest cities in the country (1630) and one of the top five most dense cities in the U.S. with a population over 100K, we have lost 18% of our tree canopy in the last 10 years and the city is adding nearly 30% more residents. Where will they go? Allowing developers to tear down historic buildings in East Cambridge, (a one-time working-class neighborhood (where many of our ethnic emigres once lived) is not only bad civic policy but also is environmentally bad because historic preservation and sustainability are natural partners. Preservation and reuse of historic buildings reduces resource and material consumption, puts less waste in landfills, and consumes less energy than demolishing buildings and constructing new ones.
Sadly, with so much industry moving in with an array of employees with salaries far higher than long-time residents, they are forcing others out (including our one time large African American population). Basically, very few can afford to live here anymore. But the answer is NOT build more and more housing (supply and demand does not work in a place like Cambridge with two big universities) and destroying our rich heritage of historic architecture to build massive housing developments everywhere will destroy the very reason many people want to move here - to say nothing of our need to preserve this history for the next generation.
Since this "Open Letter" appeared, Mr. Crowe has responded with another blog at lorencrowe.com
Here too, each of the cases he cites again are incorrect to use in addressing the East Cambridge NCD situation
Here is the key issue: historic districts have prior historic (and other value) which is in large measure why they are approved to become historic districts, so the fact that property values in HISTORIC Districts may be higher is based on their prior value and not a priori necessarily on new value.
Mr. Crowe and others are encouraged to reread the CHC guidelines for historic and conservation districts here. They are also encouraged to relook at the actual analysis of Cambridge property value and rental increases in conservation districts vs non conservation districts – as delineated in my study.
Since this blog, Dan Eisner has responded as well on the East Cambridge Planning Team list serve arguing that the “Open Letter” UK study conclusions were based on an incomplete citation. However, the sentence immediately following the one Eisner cited on p.69 reads as follows: “…in the short-run, designation has a neutral effect on property price….It is, however, difficult to separate the determinants of the long run appreciation trend within conservation areas… without an analysis of quantity adjustments, which are outside the scope of this report. We note that from the results presented it is not possible to conclude on the (non-)existence of demand or supply driven price spillover effects of conservation areas to the wider housing market area."
Finally it is not correct that a Neighborhood Conservation District would put upward pressure on this neighborhood’s prices; based on all the other studies of conservation districts, it would do the reverse. You and others have yet to provide any contradictory evidence of this.
Suzanne Preston Blier
In the Cambridge’s proposed Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO) the increased height and Floor Area Ratio (FAR) called for will impact neighborhoods in strikingly different ways. For example, up to 94% of buildings in zip code 02138 are two to five times smaller than the proposed 2.0 FAR and 1 to 3 stories shorter than the proposed height limit.[i] This will ultimately make such properties, previously considered as homes for working class and middle-income families, attractive development targets. The scale of buildings can be categorized into five different groups based on FAR and lot coverage. The below graphic succinctly illustrates the scale of each level of development intensity, as well as the potential negative impacts of unrestrained development “as of right” in every neighborhood, without normal rights of legal appeal
Map Below: Targeted sites in each zip code for 40 unit, 4 story tall AHO projects comprise very property over 10,000 SF. Properties between 5,000 SF and 9.99 K SF could be combined or used as is for 4 story projects with fewer units. FAR of 2.0 Impacts: Using Cambridge examples from the 02138zip code, the largest of Cambridge’s five zip codes with 3318 structures, reveals how changes to FAR limits can impact neighborhood density dramatically.
The map above shows the likely target area for larger Affordable Housing Projects (40 unit, 4 story structures). Here is a clickable map, you can see the buildings areas when you zoom in:
The light lavender background is the 02138 zip code where most of these large developments are slotted to occur also will be impacted far more because currently these properties have far LOWER FAR (density, Floor Area Ratio) then elsewhere in the city and a building with a 2.0 will represent a massive density and scale change here. See the graph below for the large differential impacts of a 2.0 FAR on the cities key zip codes. The lower the graph differential the more naturally a 2.0 FAR would fit in.
An FAR of 2.0 is universally reserved for large urban densities, not for other types of residential areas as the comparison below indicates.
Note that the planned Paris apartment community at the lower left has an FAR of 1.5 which is considered maximum for this kind of dwelling in most settings. AnFAR of 2.0 worldwide is intended for FAR MORE dense urban areas or structures – student dorms, large and tall apartment complexes, and office buildings. Key parts of residential Cambridge do not meet the criteria for 2.0 FAR found in other places like New York city, Mumbai, or outlying areas of Paris.
Group 1 (above): 0.20 to 0.49 FAR (410 structures) = 12% of buildings in 02138. These are primarily small 1 and 2 story structures on streets where the proposed 2.0 FAR for affordable housing up-zoning can be 4 to 10 times larger than the massing of current structures, with up to 40 new units replacing existing smaller homes.